Monday, May 02, 2005

Why I Didn't Burn My Beatles Records

I don't remember what Beatle song was the first I ever listened to, but I do remember the first Beatle albums I listened to-- "The Beatles' Second Album" and "Something New"-- and the incredible thrill I experienced hearing them for the first time.

I was a very musical child. Even as a baby, my mother says I used to always stop everything I was doing and sit mesmerized the moment there was music playing. Some people are tuned in to visual beauty, some to words, some to abstract concepts; growing up, I seemed at times to be attuned to all of these, but music especially brought me joy and excitement.

My parents were great lovers of music, and we had all kinds playing in our home, from the Tijuana Brass to the Cowsills to the Sound of Music to Simon and Garfunkel and more. It was a wonderful time in popular music; a time when what was commercially appreciated also seemed to have quality, originality and creativity behind it. Not that everything one heard on the radio was great, but it was a time when strong melody, craftsmanship and creativity were abounding.

Unfortunately the demise of popular music has been steady, and it correlates with a culture that has become increasingly superficial and shallow. The triumph of vulgarity and sensuality in popular music has been far-reaching, especially the travesty that is hip-hop and rap music. I know it isn't politically correct to say so, but that genre of music generally is bad.

To me, it is almost non-music, spoken words shouted over repetitive, hypnotic rhythm tracks. Even in the backing tracks there is often little originality, as they are many times nothing but re-worked samples-- a riff or a bass line-- lifted from previous hits. Yes, there is a kind of talent or skill involved in the making of rap or hip-hop. Some of its stars have talent with words; some are engaging performers. But I feel that the true beauty of music is in melody, and rap and hip/hop major on rhythm and rhyme at the expense of tunefulness.

But worse than the missing melodies of rap/hip hop are the banal lyrics, which it seems aim to provoke and offend. The impression I have when I hear most rap/hop-hop is of insecure singers boasting about themselves in angry tirades, ranting about how their sexual prowess, their rich lifestyle and their ability to rap makes them so much better than the next rapper. Who cares?

By contrast there have been periods in American popular music when lyrics of popular tunes were urbane, witty and well crafted. There was true artistry behind the lyrics of such greats as Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, and Oscar Hammerstein. Perhaps some of the rappers have talent on this level, but in my opinion it is talent utterly wasted in their chosen genre.

But getting back to the Beatles. It's hard to believe, given the almost quaint words and sounds of the early Beatles, that when they first appeared on the American scene, they were considered to pose as great a danger to morals and to the culture as today's vulgarians. For in listening to the music of the early Beatles, one encounters a joy and sweetness that is completely absent from today's pop music. That is not to say that either they, or their music, were innocent. Those who have read biographies of the Beatles have learned that they were a pretty wild bunch, as far as their private lifestyles were concerned. But in their music the Beatles used their gift as songwriters to convey the exuberance of romantic love in a fresh way; yet it was not at all crass. Early hits like "Please Please Me", "She Loves You", and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" demonstrated their gift for memorable, catchy melodies, interesting musical arrangements, great harmony singing and an original way of putting all of these elements together. In their live performances, one could sense their pleasure in performing and in the music itself. They dressed in elegant, matching Pierre Cardin suits; they humbly bowed before the audience at the end of their performances.

Contrast this with the self-exalting swagger of today's performers, who pounce upon the stage and try to impress you with their incredible "badness" through raunchy dance moves and outrageous clothes (or lack of them). Many of these performers' costumes make them literally look like clowns, yet they don't seem aware of it.

Just as the Beatles were making their mark on America, the always outspoken John Lennon made an offhand remark to a reporter that the Beatles were now "bigger than Jesus". What he meant simply as an honest observation about their popularity among youth, many took offense at as the arrogant remarks of a pagan. Soon, apparently at the instigation of zealous pastors and Christian parents, Beatle records were being burnt at bonfires by the same young fans who had previously rushed to buy them. Now I suppose one might argue that if the Beatles were anti-Christian then shouldn't Christians not listen to them? Certainly, their music reflected the spirit of the times rather than a Christian approach to life.

Well, if a fellow Christian told me that they had decided that the Beatles were not good listening material for them because of their conscience, I would certainly support their choice. At the same time, I think that so few musicians that have come along that possess the musical genius of the Beatles, and it would certainly be a shame to not listen to them anymore. Besides, I believe that as non-Christian bands go, the Beatles were among those whose music was more spiritually oriented than others, with themes of seeking love, peace and understanding among humanity prevalent in their body of work.

I can appreciate the beauty and the talent in the songs of the Beatles, while at the same time, not seeking identity as a human being in their music or in following them as a band. And believing that all true talent and creativity is a gift from God, I can even glorify God for the music of the Beatles. What I celebrate is not those moments when their lyrics promoted Eastern religion or seemingly advocated the use of drugs.

But I celebrate the amazing beauty in the melodies and lyrics of songs like "Yesterday", "If I Fell", "Golden Slumbers", "For No One", and so many others. I celebrate the artistic impulse that inspired and challenged the Beatles to always try to improve, stretch and grow in their music. I celebrate their amazing instincts and innovations as recording artists, leading them from simple collections of songs on their early albums to increasingly sophisticated songs presented on the first-ever "concept" album (Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band). I celebrate the exquisite three-part harmonies of "Nowhere Man", "Because" or "This Boy"; the wild inventiveness of "Strawberry Fields Forever" or "I Am the Walrus"; the wonderful energy, humor and camaraderie that the band exhibited when playing together, the idealism and depth of emotion in songs like "Hey Jude", "All You Need is Love" or "Let It Be".

I credit the Beatles with inspiring me with a view that popular music could be a vehicle for touching many people with the joy of music. That one could be an excellent musician, taking the craft of songwriting seriously as a professional, but aim for the higher goal of artistic success, above and beyond mere commercial success. The kind of a songwriter I am today owes much to their influence.

That Old Feeling: Meet the Beatles-great article on the Beatles by Richard Corliss of Time

The Beatles by Kurt Loder-Time100 Essay